GARDENING / Turning over new leaves: What should Santa put in the horticultural stocking this year? Michael Leapman looks at 1992's crop of gardening books

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A HISTORY assignment: discuss the significance of the English Civil War and the First World War. If you answer 'Civil War brought the development of gardens to an abrupt halt', and 'The Great War, which delayed the publication of Farrer's English Rock Garden, rudely interrupted the golden age of gardens', then you have the obsessive, blinkered quality needed to be a passionate gardening writer.

The quotations are from Richard Bisgrove's National Trust Book of the English Garden (Penguin pounds 14.99), just published as a large-format illustrated paperback and certain to be one of the most popular gift books for gardeners this Christmas. Bisgrove provides an informative account of the history of garden design and horticultural methods, deploying his entertainingly sharp eye for the malicious rivalry that has always existed between competing schools. Capability Brown, the 18th-century exponent of natural-looking landscapes - and consequently the destroyer of many traditional formal gardens - provoked one contemporary critic to hope he would die before Brown, so he could see Heaven before the trend-setting vandal 'improved' it.

Bisgrove has written another new design-oriented title, The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll (Frances Lincoln pounds 20). In both books he credits Miss Jekyll with settling the long argument between gardeners who advocated Brown's naturalistic design and those who preferred architectural layouts. She achieved this by teaming up with the architect Edwin Lutyens and showing that you could deploy both styles at the same time. Her sense of shape and colour comes across well in her many sketched designs, modified versions of which are reproduced here, as well as in Andrew Lawson's photographs of existing Jekyll gardens.

Garden history is a well-tilled field and much of the information in Bisgrove's two volumes appears in a different form in several other new books. In The Ornamental Gardener (Headline pounds 16.99) Miranda Innes looks mainly at the man-made objects around which gardens are built, combining history with practical ideas, all magnificently illustrated.

Royal Gardens (BBC Books/Conran Octopus pounds 20) is Sir Roy Strong's companion to his recent television series, which elegantly recounts the history of the lushest and most prestigious acres in the land. Kay Sanecki's The History of the English Herb Garden (Ward Lock pounds 16.99) examines a more specialised but popular corner of the plot.

For the foreign angle there is Keeping Eden (Little, Brown pounds 32.50), a spirited history of gardening in America, compiled by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. ('What can you say about a country whose two most important contributions to the history of landscape consist of the front lawn and the wilderness park?') In The English Garden Abroad (Viking pounds 20) Charles Quest-Ritson describes gardening as our most influential cultural export. Shakespeare has clearly slipped his mind.

Louisa Jones's Gardens in Provence (Flammarion pounds 30) is meticulous and superbly photographed. Invitation to the Garden (Stewart, Tabori and Chang pounds 25) is a splendid compilation of photographs from around the world, accompanied by suitable poetry and prose.

All the above are large-format, glossy editions which, carefully arranged among the potted poinsettias, would enhance the Christmas decor of any well-bred conservatory. Much rarer are the more modest blooms, the gardening books that rely on their words rather than their looks. Among these is the year's most charming and readable offering, a transatlantic dialogue by letter between two people passionately interested in gardens and food.

In The 3,000 Mile Garden (Pan pounds 14.99), Roger Phillips, plant illustrator and creator of the garden in London's Eccleston Square, exchanges letters with Leslie Land, an American food writer and gardener whom he met on a mushroom hunt. The cover description of them as 'two eccentric gourmet gardeners' made me fear the worst. What twee, selfconscious folksiness was ahead? And it does begin offputtingly. In only his second letter Phillips is writing of 'our correspondence', as in: 'One of the things our correspondence throws up is the plants that grow in one country and not the other.' Well, yes.

Worse, as self-styled gourmets, they cannot mention an item of food without going into a detailed description of how they cooked and wolfed it. Land has a particularly alarming culinary style. Her double duck (stewed and grilled) with wild mushrooms requires several hours and a diploma in micro-surgery, while her pan-fried shad (or herring) with rhubarb compote sounds quite disgusting.

Yet as soon as the book loses its seed-leaves and starts to take root, it . . . well, it grows on you. Phillips introduces the semblance of a plot when he writes of a threat to raze the Eccleston Square garden for a car park. The horrified Land sends him a copy of a Joni Mitchell song to rally protesters but there is no need, because the recession gets in first.

Early on there are worrying signs that sex may be added to the steamy mix of food and flowers when Phillips, apropos of nothing very much, reveals: 'I feel that for sex to work there must be a fundamental desire.' Luckily such foreplay is nipped in the bud when Land is swept off her feet by a man who transplants her from Maine to Pleasant Valley, New York, introducing a brand-new garden to the cast.

Even politics gets an occasional airing. Land's 'Couldn't stop crying when the tanks rolled into Lithuania' prompts the startled query from Phillips: 'Are you Lithuanian?' And Land sums up the book's global message thus: 'The big problems: poverty, wars, the whole caboodle, all boil down in the end to one basic question: who gets to eat good food, breathe clean air and smell a few flowers in peace?' You have a nice day, too.

Back to basics with some new practical books of instruction. For the increasing numbers turning to natural methods, there could be no better gift than The Complete Manual of Organic Gardening (Headline pounds 25), edited by Basil Caplan. As editor of Organic Gardening magazine, Caplan is clearly committed to the cause but is not dogmatic: he allows us to use plastic containers and petrol-driven shredders. Thorough and well organised, this is a substantial (406 pages) and useful work of reference.

Organic Gardening with Love (Robson Books pounds 16.95), by Thelma Barlow, star of Coronation Street, is of a very different genre, the celebrity gardening book. Inexplicably, Ms Barlow is photographed on the cover carrying a bowl of organic tomatoes and a portable phone. But peeping between the foliage of chat, recipes and doggerel are the shoots of some sound practical hints.

For town gardeners there are two slim books of value: the Gardeners' World Book of Container Gardening (BBC Books pounds 7.99) by Anne Swithinbank, the flame-haired television temptress who does things with pots that you and I can only dream about; and David Carr's terse but sensible Practical Container Gardening (Crowood Press pounds 3.99).

Herb Growing: A visual guide (Chapmans pounds 4.99), by Bruce Robertson, is pragmatic and thorough, with black-and-white line drawings instead of photographs. In the Complete Guide to Indoor and Conservatory Plants (Kingfisher pounds 12.99), Ken March and Jill Thomas cover more than 500 plants, with well tabulated information about their characteristics and care.

Harry Dodson's Practical Kitchen Garden (BBC Books pounds 15.95) is another spin-off from The Victorian Kitchen Garden, the popular TV series of a few years back. Dodson, who starred in the series, was head gardener at Chilton, where it was made. In this useful new book he looks back a little, but then projects forward to describe how modern techniques have evolved from those of the past. To judge from the pictures, he always gardens in a tie - as idiosyncratic in its way as Thelma Barlow's phone.

Novices could do worse than indent for Barbara Kelsey's The First Time Gardener (Book Guild pounds 14.95), which combines personal reminiscences with basic instruction - but it could have done with some proper pictures.

For those whose obsession confines itself to a single species, Batsford publishes a series of specialised and detailed manuals. They include Willows: the Genus Salix (pounds 29.99) by Christopher Newholme, and Hemerocallis: Day Lilies (pounds 17.99) by Walter Erhardt, who shares Richard Bisgrove's attitude to history ('During the two world wars in Europe there was understandably little interest in day lilies') and who even manages to include some recipes: chicken with day lilies, deep-fried day lilies and more.

Of course, the really obsessive gardener won't have time to read any of them.-

(Photographs omitted)

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